Dickens’ Bicentenary: Why the Fuss?
Posted by Alison Chapman
We are entering the era of Victorian bi-centenaries.
Robert Browning’s 200th birthday is on 7 May.
Edward Lear follows close behind on 12 May.
And then there’s Charles Dickens, who reaches his bi-centenary on 7 February. But I expect you already know that, because celebrations on his behalf have been going on for a while already, and across multiple media. See About Dickens 2012 for many of the celebrations planned, and Warwick’s brand new website Celebrating Dickens (featuring podcasts, readings and video clips), as well as the magnificently ambitious project Dickens Journalism Online, plus numerous biographies (I’m currently reading Claire Tomlin’s impressive contribution), critical studies, new film adaptations and documentaries, conferences (such as the online conference Dickens’ World, as well as Charles Dickens and the Mid-Victorian Press), wreath-laying services, and even a new special Royal Mint £2 commemorative coin (yours for £8.50!).
I love reading Dickens. Really, I do. I have re-read and taught his novels more times than I can remember. I watch every adaptation I can find here in Canada (thank you, BBC iPlayer, Knowledge Network and PBS…but we’re still very behind UK viewers). I read all the latest biographies. I try to keep up to date with the critical trends in Dickens scholarship. And I’m becoming extremely interested in his periodical editing (more about that in a moment). But there has been a lot of very un-British fuss about his birthday. I’d like to try and make more sense of the fuss, especially in relation to the bicentenaries of Victorian poets.
Much of the popular discussion about the importance of the Dickens’ bicentenary is based on the premise that Dickens and his writing are quintessentially Victorian yet also transcend his time (as the About Dickens 2012 website puts it). The other major Victorian authors who share a birthday in 2012 may, like Dickens, also have the all-important canonization at Westminster Abbey (Browning and Dickens were buried there, Lear has a memorial stone), but the bicentenaries of Browning and Lear are, frankly, not attracting anything like the attention of Dickens’ birthday. Perhaps these writers aren’t seen as so quintessentially Victorian. And perhaps they don’t transcend their time, either, in that strange doubled celebrity enjoyed by Dickens. But why? This is a fascinating issue…. In any case, there will be a conference, as announced on VPN, on Browning and the dramatic monologue (sponsored in part by the London Browning Society), and a special issue of Victorian Poetry (summer 2012) on Browning, but that’s all I could find out about Browning’s birthday plans (the Browning Society website has no details of bicentenary events, for example, which surprised me, and neither does the Armstrong Browning Library website). Lear’s bicentenary has a page on Facebook, and a blog on Lear lists many exhibitions and lectures to mark the occasion, but nothing on the scale of Dickens. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s bicentenary in 2006 had a similar treatment: conferences (such as the one I organized at the Armstrong Browning Library), an exhibition, special journal issues (Victorian Poetry, Victorian Review), and, perhaps most welcome of all, a full scholarly critical edition of the poems (see my review essay of this marvellous scholarly work here), as well as an affordable student-friendly Broadview selected edition. Tennyson, too, recently had a bi-centenary in 2009, and again this attracted conferences and special journal issues. If I’ve missed any major bicentenary parties, please let me know.
Clearly the bicentenaries of the Brownings, Lear, and Tennyson, don’t attract a fraction of the popular and academic attention given to Dickens.
Dickens deserves the attention, undoubtedly, but the current cultural saturation of bi-centenary celebrations raises some questions.
- Why has Dickens become so synonymous with the Victorian era, overshadowing other writers and most especially poets?
- Is the current celebration of Dickens in particular (but not exclusively) as a novelist haunted by Victorian generic, literary and economic hierarchies between poetry and prose, and also by Victorian constructions of authorial celebrity?
If these questions imply a continued division between poetry and prose, the relation between the two in the Victorian era was in fact complicated and fraught. Although lauded as an age of prose, and although the poetry book market was in collapse at the start of the period, poetry had a symbiotic relationship with prose. For example, poetry turned to narrative, in the development of the verse novel (such as Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh of 1856 [imprint 1857]), as well as the sonnet sequence (such as Meredith’s Modern Love ). These emerging Victorian poetry genres were often hybrid forms, still holding on to a lyric modality, such as Tennyson’s The Princess (1847). In addition, most people would have experienced poetry through its regular appearance in a huge number of Victorian periodicals, which also serialized novels of course. Periodical poetry was not just filler, but an integral part of both the periodical text and also the career of the poets who published in serial titles (however much they might openly disparage periodicals).
Dickens was central to Victorian periodical culture, especially with such titles as Household Words which we include in our ongoing Victorian Periodical Poetry Database. Household Words published, in its weekly run between 30 March 1850 and 28 May 1859, 410 poems. We can identify most the poets from the Office Book, which Anne Lohrli relies on for her index, which has in turn been invaluable for our own database. Although some poets publish in Household Words multiple times (especially Dickens’ favourite Adelaide Anne Proctor with her 74 poems), many poets published only one or two poets, and many are almost certainly untraceable (especially those the Office Book identifies cryptically, such as “Miss Lynn’s friend”, someone who published three poems). Most of my work recently with the Victorian Periodical Poetry Database has been providing additional information on the authors to supplement what we know from Anne Lohrli’s index, and this research has taught me a lot about the kinds of people that published in periodicals, and how tricky it is to track them down. The poetry in Household Words, seen as an integral part of the periodical by its editor, Dickens, and indeed actively fostered by him, was one example of how Victorian readers experienced poetry differently from the standard Victorian poetry syllabus version of greatest-hits. In other words, Dickens shows us how the popular, mainstream, canonical understanding of Victorian poetry is only part of its history and, taken on its own, simply anachronistic.
In the fever of consuming new novel adaptations, new biographies, new scholarly enterprises, new websites and even collectable coins, Dickens’ role in the culture of Victorian poetry shouldn’t be forgotten. And neither should the questions Dickens’ fame and celebrity raise about Victorian poetry versus prose.
****As a footnote to the post, even the fuss about Dickens’ birthday can’t stop the important Dickens Museum from closing, despite much controversy, for much of his bicentenary year.
The Dickens’ Bicentenary: Why the Fuss? by Alison Chapman, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.